- Songs for a New America (1953)
- Delta Return (1956)
- The Married Land (1962)
- The Half Gods (1968)
- Five Chambered Heart (1986)
- Millennial Harvest: The Life And Collected Poems of Charles Greenleaf Bell (2006)
By Sun’ya Brown (SHS)
In 1916, Charles Greenleaf Bell was born on October 31 in Greenville, Mississippi, to Percy (a lawyer) and Nona Archer Bell. A young and impressionable little boy, Bell took full advantage of every educational opportunity. He has an impressive educational background . Graduating as a Rhodes Scholar, Bell received a B.S. from the University of Virginia in 1936. From Oxford, he received a B.A. in 1938, an M.A. in 1938, and a Litt. B. in 1939 (Rosenblum 25).
Bell became an instructor in English at Blackburn College (1939-40) before leaving for Iowa State University, where he taught English (1940-43) and then physics (1943-45). Later, Bell joined the University of Chicago as an assistant professor of humanities. Leaving Chicago in 1956, he became a Fulbright professor at Technische Hockschule in Munich, Germany. Bell then went to St. John’s College in Maryland as a tutor until 1967. Next, Bell went to St. John’s College in New Mexico (1967- ) as a tutor and director of graduate preceptorial (1972-73). Bell worked as a lecturer at several colleges such as Black Mountain College, the University of Rochester, and the Springfield Public Library. Also, Bell has served as a guest professor at the University of Frankfurt in Germany, the State University of New York, and the University of Puerto Rico in Mayaguez (Rosenblum 25, Contemporary Authors 50-1).
Bell married twice and has five children: Nona D., Charlotte C., Margaret Delia from his first marriage to Mildred Cheatham Winfree at the age of twenty-three in 1939 (divorced in 1949), and Carola M. Birnbaum, and Sandra M. from his second marriage to Diana Mason on July 23, 1949 (Contemporary Authors 50-1). Charles Bell’s writings include Songs for a New America (verse), Delta Return (verse), The Married Land (first novel in trilogy), The Half Gods (second novel in trilogy), and Five Chambered Hearth. Bell’s works in progress are The Third Kingdom, completing the trilogy; Loves Five-Fold, a collection of verse; See It Whole, a volume of articles; Symbolic History, a series of slide-tape dramas; and a study of western arts and soul (Contemporary Authors 50-1).
Among his awards and honors are the Rhodes Scholarship in 1938-39, the Rockefeller post-war fellow in 1948, the Ford Foundation fellow in 1952-3, and the Fulbright fellow. Bell is also a member of Phi Beta Kappa and the Raven Society (Contemporary Authors 50-1).
According to Paul Cooley, who worked with Charles G. Bell for a number of years, Millennial Harvest: the Life and Collected Poetry of Charles Greenleaf Bell has been released and is listed in the Online Review of Books “recommended reads” column in March, 2007. Cooley stated that “Charles was childhood friends with Shelby Foote and Walker Percy, but his work has been relatively unrecognized. At a time when most poetry was tending toward free verse, Charles, for the most part, stuck by romantic forms.He pretty much did what he wanted, and he did so with unparalleled intelligence and style. His autobiography is well worth reading.”
In 2006 Charles moved to Maine to live with his daughter Sandy. In 2008, at the age of ninety-two he was still working on his huge manuscript Poetry and Translation. In December 25, 2010, Charles G. Bell died. His obituary was published in the Morning Sentinel (December 2010)
Charles G. Bell ‘s Obituary (December, 2010) from the Morning Sentinel
BELGRADE, Maine– Charles G. Bell died peacefully on Christmas morning at his daughter’s home in Belgrade after several years of declining health. He was born on Halloween 1916 in Greenville, Mississippi., the son of Judge Percy and Nona Bell. His lifelong passion for astronomy, geology, poetry, and the heights of tall trees began in childhood.
He attended the University of Virginia in 1933 and was a Rhodes Scholar as his focus expanded from physics to the humanities. He returned to the states in 1940 to begin his professional calling as an educator and writer. He taught at many universities and published two novels, three books of poetry, and an autobiography. The culmination of his vision was in his multimedia Symbolic History shows, which trace the evolution of Western Civilization through sight and sound.
Mr. Bell was most blessed in the loving companionship of his wife, Danny, for 54 years. She was his true compass and together they made their homes in Annapolis, Md., and Santa Fe, NM, where he was Tutor Emeritus at St. John’s College. He moved to Belgrade in 2006 to live with his daughter, Sandra Colt, and later lived for two years at the Alzheimer’s Care Center in Gardiner, where he received loving care. Despite the infirmities of age, he continued to draw people by his sweetness of spirit, breadth of knowledge, and unfailing humor.
Mr. Bell was preceded in death by his beloved wife, Danny. He is survived by five daughters, Nona Estrin and Delia Robinson, both of Montpelier, Vt.; Charlotte Samuels of Fairfax, Calif.; Carola Bell of Santa Fe, NM; and Sandy Colt of Belgrade; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held in May of 2011 in Santa Fe, NM, with details to be made available through St. John’s College.
The night each plows
A furrow of death
In the field of stars
I am nothing
But one with the one
That makes the nothing
Published in Morning Sentinel on December 29, 2010
The following obituary was written by Dr. Stephen Loxton, Head of Theology & Religious Studies at Sherborne School for Girls in Dorset, UK. In an email to MSWritersand Musicians.com, he states, “Charles G Bell was a friend of mine for many years – I met him first in the 1970s via my ex-wife’s family.” Here is the Obituary that Loxton wrote for friends in the UK and for Exeter College Oxford, where Charles was a student from 1935 to 1939. It is a comprehensive biography of Bell’s life.
Charles Greenleaf Bell: born on Halloween 1916; died on Christmas Day 2010.
Charles Bell died peacefully at the home of his youngest daughter in Belgrade, Maine, on 25th December 2010. Bell was a scholar, poet, writer, and polymath, and an inspirational teacher. His early intellectual flair and his promise as a physicist sent him via a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford, to Exeter College, (1935-1939, and from 1940 to 1956 he had teaching and associate professorial posts at Iowa State, Princeton and Chicago universities. At Oxford however, Bell’s wider interests led him to switch to English, which he taught initially at Iowa, whilst the demands of the war economy required him to return to physics, which in due course took him to Princeton. Bell’s greatest endeavour and his most important work was what duly emerged through his whole career as ‘Symbolic History through Sight and Sound.’ Long before it was fashionable, Bell wanted to present a holistic and kinaesthetic experience of understanding history – ‘history’ here meaning the ‘symbolic history’ of human endeavours in the widest sense. He used whatever the latest technology offered, which was not a lot in the late 1930s when he started to give his shows. Eventually he produced a 40 x 55 minute series that went via slide/tape format, to VHS and finally to DVD. Underlying this was a strong, indeed fierce anti-reductionist perspective. Like a latter-day Kant, if you can image Kant reborn as a Mississippian, Bell affirmed the antinomy of spirit and matter, and argued for a dynamic view of historical progression, using evidence from art, science, poetry, music, mathematics, philosophy, and much else, to illustrate and defend his view. His innovative approach was to aim to give his audience authentic experience of the artefacts and materials that each of his shows considered. Thus he used music, taped readings, and projected images of the subjects he reviewed. Bell’s approach was scholarly but not dispassionate: he cheerfully professed his egotism and claimed that in his work and writing his subject was ‘the experienced life and cosmos of the protagonist Bell’.
Charles Bell was born in Greenville, Mississippi, where his father was a lawyer and Judge. His school friends included the future novelist Walker Percy and the future historian of the American Civil War, Shelby Foote. Bell was to be a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford (1935-39), a Rockefeller Fellow in 1948, a Ford Foundation Fellow (1952-53) and the recipient of a Fulbright Fellowship. A bright, inquisitive and strong-willed boy, Bell went at 16 to the University of Virginia and quickly achieved membership of the Dean’s List, which meant that he had no obligation to attend classes. He majored in Physics but was signally inspired by the cultural historian Stringfellow Barr to keep open his thinking to a holistic range of disciplines, to focus study on primary works, and to eschew narrow subject specialisms. Working with drive and a fierce independence of mind, Bell completed the four-year course at Virginia in three, and won a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford to study Physics at Exeter College. But his wider interests were, by his supervisor, soon perceived to be a challenge to the lab-based Physics course. Bell, with characteristic brio and confidence, switched his scholarship to English Language and Literature, and with the then youthful Neville Coghill as his tutor, gained his BA in 1938 and via a dissertation on the poetry of Edward Fairfax, his BLitt a year later. Academic matters aside, Bell was deeply impressed by the collegiate spirit of Exeter and by Oxford’s tutorial system.
In 1939 Bell, now married, took a post teaching English at Blackburn College, in Illinois. He found the students keen and willing, but the department fixated on secondary texts. Bell was not disposed to compromise, and his contract was not extended to a second year. But a momentous technical development gave Bell the means to move his major area of study forward. In 1939 colour Kodachrome slides came onto the market, and Bell rapidly began to build a massive collection of slides. These he wove into the presentations he had, since his Oxford days, been giving, which explored the ‘correlations’ through history of the various human artistic and intellectual developments to the end of essaying an explanatory perspective. Previously, as they say in all the best American TV drama series, Bell had used records and pictures in association with readings all connected with his own narrative, to give what he termed his ‘shows’. Bell would work on this sequence for the rest of his life, developing what was eventually titled ‘Symbolic History through Sight and Sound’ – a sequence of 40 shows (eventually transferred to VHS and then to DVDs). With the upgrade of Kodachrome, Bell integrated more of the material into a slide-show and worked up a sequence of presentations that he gave on a weekly basis for six months to an adult class at the Illinois State Library in Springfield. Bell and his growing package of shows moved on to Iowa State University, officially to teach English. Here he met a group of Jewish European exiles and was delighted to get support to run groups to read, translate and discuss master works of both Italian and German literature. Here was the starting point of the weekly ‘Dante’ and ‘Goethe’ groups that would feature in his routine of life virtually to the end.
After Pearl Harbour, the US Government’s V-12 program sent thousands of drafted college-trained officers to universities to brush up their technical and scientific knowledge. As Bell was originally a physicist, he was detailed to teach on these programs (1943-45) and during this period he became a friend and colleague of John Atanasoff, who was developing America’s first electronic digital computer. Bell’s work went so well that he was then called to a research and teaching post at the Palmer Laboratory at Princeton (1945). Living on the campus with his wife and growing family of three daughters, and with Albert Einstein as a genial neighbour, Bell’s work in physics was concerned with an analysis of the telemetry of the new generation of jet-fighters which were being developed to fly beyond the speed of sound. Bell was a part of team analysing the data collected from stain gauges placed on automated fighter prototypes that were being tested by various aircraft companies contracted by the US government. Cutting edge though this was, Bell’s energies continued to focus on the development of his Symbolic History. His stimulus to work to such ends was strengthened by his friendship with the cultural historian Erich Kahler, another European exile, and a group of other scholars who were informally termed by Bell the ‘Kahler circle’.
By 1946 Bell had moved over to Princeton’s English faculty. He found the young Galway Kinnell a star member of his English class, and Bell was thereafter a strong advocate of Kinnell’s poetic work. Bell’s marriage ran into difficulties through this period, but work proved highly productive. In 1948 Bell published an important paper in the journal The Philosophy of Science. Entitled ‘Mechanical Replacement of Purpose in Biology,’ the paper contained Bell’s most fluent presentation of his emerging philosophy of paradox. The essence of the view was that ‘the sum of any interacting and organising thing, from the electron to the cosmos, transcends as a unity the parts which construct it, and if examined rationally must be found to exist as well in toto, in essence, in spirit… as in the no more solid particles, the relationships and dependencies.’ Bell was keen to widen the range of primary material set on Princeton’s assigned reading lists, trying (but failing) to get Blake’s prophetic writings onto the lists. Debating this in the department, a colleague argued that Blake would ‘enter the assigned readings over my dead body’. ‘That might not be a bad idea’ quipped Bell. Things came to ahead when a new Chairman of English told Bell that his ‘larger studies constituted a liability in this department.’ Via the good offices of John Berryman and Kahler, Bell gained a Rockefeller award to go (1948-49) to Europe to research symbolic history.
On his return trip Bell met and fell in love with Diana (Danny) Mason, who was returning from a visit to her English cousins. They parted at the end of the voyage ‘as if for ever’, but with his first marriage ending Bell could not forget Danny nor, fortunately, her address in Maryland. He duly wrote and asked to come and visit her and the rest, as they say, was history; they married before the end of the year just in time for Bell to move to his new post at Chicago.
Bell worked at Chicago during a period still influenced by Hutchings ‘Great Books’ Plan, the main idea being that the programme of study should be shaped by the great tradition of major writings from the intellectual past. Bell was extremely attracted to this vision and was well-equipped to contribute to it. He spent a term on an exchange in Frankfurt (1952) and the last year was spent ‘on loan’ at the University of Puerto Rico where he worked to build up and teach on a Hutchins-style programme. Bell had published a number of poems over the years in a variety of journals, but in 1953 he published his first book of connected verse Songs for a New America (Indiana University Press). By 1956 the subject specialist forces had retaken the high ground at Chicago and Bell, still eager to pursue the wider and more authentic programme, looked for a new position and found one that was ideal.
In 1956 Bell moved to St. John’s College Annapolis, where Stringfellow Barr was President from 1947 to 1957. With Scot Buchanan, Barr had devised a ‘great books’ approach to the programme at St. Johns, something that has been sustained to the present day. Bell had in a real sense come home and he taught as a faculty member till the end of the 1966 session, when he moved west to the ‘other’ St. John’s campus, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Bell, as Tutor and later as Tutor Emeritus, spent the next forty years developing his work and building up again both his ‘Dante’ and ‘Goethe’ groups. In addition to his teaching duties Bell developed his Symbolic History into the VHS format and various grants he obtained gave him the means to produce and market the sets of tapes as a resource. Just as this task was coming to a close Bell realised that the new digital technology would provide a much more secure longer-term format for the series, and so he spent another significant phase of time converting the shows to a digital dvd format. The many years at St. Johns saw Bell produce his remaining major works of poetry and fiction. His poetic sequence Delta Return was published in 1956 and his semi-autobiographical novel The Married Land (1962). With this, like the later novel (The Half-Gods, 1968) Bell’s writing was assisted through residences at Yaddo, the artist’s colony at Saratoga Springs, NY, as well as through a sabbatical leave in the early 1960s when the Bells lived for year in Worcestershire. A further volume of poetry, The Five Chambered Heart, appeared in 1986 and in his final phase of creative work Bell produced a witty autobiography where his prose was fused with his various unpublished poems, and in the second half of the book, his three volumes of published poetry were reprinted. This work Millennial Harvest; the life and collected poems of Charles G. Bell was published in 2006.
A Review of The Married Land
By Sun’ya Brown (SHS)
Charles G. Bell’s The Married Land is a novel about a married couple, Daniel Byrne and Lucy Woodruff, who are returning to their original homes from where they were living in Maryland. Daniel is returning to Delta Landing, MS; Lucy is returning to her Quaker home in Pennsylvania. Both parties have ailing relatives back home that they must attend. Daniel Byrne struggles to understand his marriage’s path while separated from his wife. While separated, Daniel tries to figure out “the road of his marriage” (The Married Land 221).
Critic James Dickey writes, “Charles Bell writes on the familiar American theme of return to the natal region, in his case the Mississippi Delta. This primal Birthplace is not so much itself as it is–dwindling in Time–youth, loss of innocence, childhood, innocence, and, finally, underlying all life, the stunned miraculous landscape of birth itself, the womb, water, Creation. Bell bores into his subject with great determination and energy and a keenness of nostalgia amounting almost to desperation” (114).
The Married Land by Charles G. Bell was, at first, very hard for me to understand. The back-and-forth plot between the lives of the two protagonists, Daniel and Lucy, and the continuous switching of the tenses from present to past was really confusing. Joseph Rosenblum writes about this novel, “Like Daniel Byrne in The Married Land, Bell speculates about his parents and the impact of their actions on him even before his birth. He looks into the past because ‘time is round: /Backwardness is the shape of things to come’ (The Historical Motion); only by looking into the past can one understand the present and future” (26). After reading further into the book, the plot(s) and tense(s) become much easier to understand and, in fact, enjoyable. The “happy” ending to the book is uplifting. Rosenblum agrees, “This happy ending is anticipated throughout the work by its lighthearted tone. Even deaths and disasters do not dampen the overall sense of optimism; many of the potentially devastating events are treated with humor, albeit with compassion” (26).
The first in a trilogy, The Married Land is a semi-autobiographical novel about heredity and origin that follows a married couple who return to their native homes to care for ailing relatives. Lucy Woodruff, the wife, goes back to her childhood Quaker home in Pennsylvania. The author, Charles Bell, did extensive research in his construction of these families, including taking inspiration from the journals of his own fore-bearers. Laid in is a review notes this novel is a prose re-work of the author’s long poem “Delta Return.”
- Bell, Charles Greenleaf. The Married Land. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1962.
- Dickey, James. “Five Poets.” Poetry 89 (NA): 110-17.
- Gale Research Company. Contemporary Authors. Ann Everory. Volume 2 of 158. New Revision Series. Detroit: Frederick G. Ruffner, 1981.